The most memorable thing for me about the recently concluded O.J. Simpson murder trial is not my conviction that a rich man was able to manipulate our system of justice to get away with murder. It is not even my dismay that the Simpson defense team in general, and Johnnie Cochran in particular, quite consciously decided to interject the issue of race into a matter that in my mind had only to do with domestic violence, jealousy and rage. Rather, what I will longest remember about this long, sordid, sad affair are the television shots of black Americans reacting to the jury's not guilty verdict with spontaneous exclamations of triumph. In the cafeterias on black college campuses, in black bars and barbershops, on the streets in black neighborhoods, African-American citizens burst into applause, slapped hands and whooped for joy as if they were cheering at an athletic contest and their team had just scored a winning goal.
As one of the nearly eighty percent of white Americans who were convinced beyond doubt that Simpson was guilty, as someone who could not imagine a conspiracy nearly so large (one that would have had to have involved the entire Los Angeles police department, its laboratory support units and the attorneys prosecuting the case) to have planted all the blood evidence that pointed to Simpson and Simpson alone as the murderer, I was absolutely shocked by the nature of the reaction of America's black population. For over a year I had read the polls that said a substantial proportion of black Americans felt that Simpson was innocent. But frankly, I thought the polls reflected wishful thinking, an understandable desire that another black hero not be pulled down from his pedestal of achievement. Until I saw the exultation with which they responded to the verdict, however, I did not understand how deeply this country's black people were invested in O.J. Simpson's fate. I remain discouraged that a murderer has escaped justice, but, cognizant of the way black Americans reacted to Simpson's freedom, I urge my fellow white Americans to join me in hearing the victorious shouts of our black neighbors as a wake-up call.
In that state of startled consciousness, I suggest a viewing of Spike Lee's Clockers. Clockers doesn't address the Simpson trial in any direct way. It is based on Richard Price's 1992 novel which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and which was written long before the Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman murders, and it has to do with drug dealers, not wife batterers. The connections come with the considerable extent to which Clockers deals with America's criminal justice system and the way in which that system handles the young black men who so often fall under its sway. Clockers provides an insight into why black Americans rooted for O.J. Simpson so intently.
For middle-class white viewers anyway, Clockers is like an excursion into a foreign country. And that country is located in the Balkans of the American soul. Behind the film's opening credits, we see a series of corpses, sprawled and blood-spattered on the streets of our cities, a fallen army of wasted young lives slaughtered in a struggle for the instant cash of the drug trade. From these night-time visions of hell, the picture moves to an urban park on a sunlit day where young black men in colorful garb lounge around in the open air and speak in a patois we don't understand. Punctuated with a ritual clasping of hands, their conversation includes a style of body movements and miniature theatrical performances that is beyond our ken. So begins director Lee's journey through the contemporary mean streets of Brooklyn, a journey that discovers a pattern of human intercourse that most of us are blessed not to know first hand. This is the world of the modern drug dealer, the clocker, so-called because he labors around the clock, a world where hip black youths grasp the greased rope of the narcotics trade in hopes of hoisting themselves out of poverty. We think we know this world from the crime reports in every daily newspaper and every evening's news broadcast. But it's the premise of this film that we know it only in the most stereotyped way. When we watch the police-orchestrated "walk-bys" that are staged for the evening news, we see young men we presume are cut from the same uneducated, violent cloth. We see their defiant sneers and we deem them lost, or worse, less than human. And thus we turn blind eyes to the brutalities our police employ to bring them into line. But it is the provocative premise of this film that the people who walk the concrete paths of the modern urban jungle, the young men who so often end up in handcuffs, are richly varied, profoundly complex, and often surprisingly intelligent.
Clockers is the story of Ronnie "Strike," Dunham (Mekhi Phifer), a teenaged Brooklynite and rising officer in the local crack brigade. From his post at the entrance to a public housing complex, Strike commands a platoon of slightly younger black boys who actually handle the drugs, make the drops and collect the cash. When he's on the street, Strike himself is never in possession of either drugs or enough money to call attention to himself. The cops know he's a dealer and the boss of his particular district, but the operation is conducted in such a way that though they harass him on a daily basis, though they humiliate him whenever they have the pretext, they can't assemble the evidence to make charges against him stick.
Strike is the current protege of his boss, Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo). Rodney is forever warning Strike about the dangers of using and encouraging Strike to believe he's destined to rise in the organization. The first step for Strike might be to move to an inside job, a distribution center being conducted out of a nearby fast-food restaurant. In fact, Rodney is eager to replace Darryl Adams (Steve White), the man currently in that position, because Rodney believes Darryl is stealing from him. But if Strike wants Darryl's job, he's got to kill Darryl to get it. Later, when Darryl turns up with the back of his head blown away, Rodney assumes Strike did the hit. But to everyone's surprise, Strike's older brother Victor (Isaiah Washington) turns himself in and confesses to the shooting.
This development is shocking because Victor is everything Strike isn't. Victor is married with two children; he's a loyal husband and a devoted father. Determined to extricate his family from the incessant violence of the public housing project, Victor holds down two full-time jobs and carefully saves his money. He contributes to the support of his mother, and he regularly attends church. Not remarkably, homicide detective Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel) is flummoxed by Victor's confession. Victor says he shot Darryl in a panic when he thought Darryl was about to rob him. But that account seems so far-fetched Rocco is determined to prove that Victor is lying for some reason. And fairly quickly Rocco's suspicions fall on Strike.
Like the novel, the film version of Clockers is propelled by this murder mystery. Did Victor do it? If not, why is Victor lying? If Victor didn't do it, who did? But also like the novel, the mystery aspect is probably the least of the film's attractions. What holds us is the careful construction of an entire cast of complicated characters. Contrary to stereotype, Strike is not a punk. He's not at all stupid. And he's not a knee-jerk criminal automaton. He is certainly not a young man with "normal" moral moorings, but he is not natively violent. Some part of his circumstances, of course, are the direct result of conscious choices. Victor proves, after all, that you don't have to choose a life in the drug trade. But to a still significant degree Strike is a pawn, moved about the board of his own life by forces largely beyond his control. He's tried to make his stake in Rodney's crime organization, but he's an underclass analogue for the suburbanite career man. He's reliable, punctual and hardworking. He's careful, sober, earnest and thrifty (the book makes an extensive point of this last quality — while others may flash their money around, Strike saves relentlessly). Unlike the yuppies to whom Strike might be compared, he's not into conspicuous consumption. His automobile is several years old and it's a sensible Honda. And like the driven suburbanite, Strike's work is eating him up. He's desperately anxious about his future, and he's got an ulcer.
The other characters here are comparably complex. Rodney makes his living selling drugs, but he's as ardent a proponent of sobriety as any substance-abuse counselor. He may recruit the area's teenagers as foot soldiers for his drug operation, but he tries to teach them business skills and encourages them to save rather than waste the money he pays them. Rocco is a version of Dennis Franz's Andy Sipowicz character on NYPD Blue. Rocco is crude of manner and vile of habit. He's inherently racist and hardened in his prejudices from two decades of police work. He's hardly above bending the rules of police procedure to achieve his own notions of justice. At the same time, though, he's a dedicated cop and capable in his own way of showing mercy.
The film's "good" characters are developed with layers as well. Iris Jeeter (Regina Taylor), a mother determined to keep her 12-year-old son from becoming one of Strike's minions, always seems to express herself in anger and violence. Indeed, she can perhaps be heard in no other way, but her behavior doesn't really serve to change the nature of the dialogue. Comparably, a black uniformed policeman the locals call Andre the Giant (Keith David) tries tenaciously to be a positive influence. He encourages the younger boys and scolds the older ones who are drifting toward the drug trade. He organizes athletic events and raises money for uniforms and equipment. However, Andre is burdened with a hot temper and a reliance on physical intimidation. Moreover, he's surrendered to the idea that the drug dealers are a permanent condition of the urban environment. On one hand that may be realistic, but on the other it diminishes his effectiveness as an inspirational figure for those he would hope to lead another way. And, of course, Victor is complicated too. Put bluntly, he's the figure all middle-class whites say project-dwelling blacks should become. He's the ideally industrious ghetto dweller, unceasing in his endeavors to better himself. He believes he can make the system work. He believes that earthly salvation lies down the road of responsible labor. But whatever Victor believes, and however he acts on his beliefs, the odds are greatly stacked against him, and the demands placed upon him are so imposing, his struggle for self-improvement is almost literally exhausting. And, like everyone in the community, increasingly (like the citizens of the Balkans) like everyone else in our troubled country, Victor goes about armed. And where guns are, trouble is sure to follow.
Director Lee's decision to stylize certain portions of this film is a perplexing departure from the book's relendessly gritty realism. His decision to stage certain key scenes in stagey back projection proves particularly disconcerting. And no doubt in an effort to underscore that drugs are not solely a problem of the black community, Lee surely errs by making it seem that whites are the vast majority of customers for Strike's crack vials. In its focus on the violence of life in the drug trade, the film unfortunately neglects to detail the impact on those whose lives are destroyed by addiction. Nothing Lee depicts has the haunting quality of the novel's opening description of a 14-year-old girl's arrival to purchase her first rock: "Strike spotted her: Baby fat, baby face, Shanelle or Shanette, 14 years old maybe, standing there with that queasy smile, trying to work up the nerve. He looked away, seeing her two months from now, no more baby fat, stinky, just another pipehead." In short, qualitative as it is, the film doesn't measure up to the book from which it's drawn. But, of course, if any novel's good enough, which Clockers is, it's impossible to do it justice in only two hours of cinema.
Whatever its small failings, though, the film version is well worth seeing, particularly as thought material in the aftermath of the Simpson affair. Fans of the novel may be puzzled as to Lee's decision to relocate the story from New Jersey to Brooklyn, thereby robbing the tale of Strike's ironic belief that in New York, things were really bad. And the novel's fans will also surely observe a clearer note of hope in the film. But both works share strong messages about the devastating role of easy handgun ownership in our society (the film is the more forthrightly assertive on this point), and both underscore the inextricable connection between a culture of poverty and a climate of crime. Sometime in the past Rodney recruited Strike; now Strike recruits a 12-year-old named Tyrone (Pee Wee Love) in the same manner. What's witheringly evident is that while Strike's motives in befriending Tyrone are in some considerable measure altruistic, his relationship with the boy is utterly insidious. Thus the vicious cycle spins on and will continue to spin on until we as an entire people finally find the compassion and joint will to make it stop.
Meanwhile we need to contemplate the implications of this film for our understanding of the criminal justice system. In Clockers, the young black men who fall under the gaze of policemen are treated as guilty until proven innocent. Passersby are swept up into dragnets and considered criminals until they can conclusively demonstrate otherwise. Deep concern with proper legal procedure is practically non-existent. If the young man in police custody is not actually guilty of the immediate crime with which he's charged, he's presumed guilty of some other crime. And so the policeman is not deeply troubled with lack of evidence in this particular case. When Victor confesses to shooting Daryl Adams, it doesn't matter to case officer Larry Mazilli (John Turturro) that the confession seems palpably odd. A confession means that he can close the case, and he can't at all understand why detective Klein isn't willing to do just that. Justice, in other words, is not high among his concerns.
An association of a black face with criminality has been the subject of other recent dramatic fictions as well. In the second episode of Steven Bochco's new TV series Murder One, a black school teacher is falsely accused of a violent act and once he's been identified, the police never consider the possibility of his innocence. He is outraged that his life-long record of good citizenship is not even considered as evidence that he might be innocent, and his expressions of anger are considered demonstrative of his guilt. Several years ago in an episode of L.A. Law, the high-powered young attorney played by Blair Underwood is arrested while jogging through a white neighborhood, his crime being solely the color of his skin. In Carl Franklin's current Devil in a Blue Dress (based on the Walter Mosley mystery), Denzel Washington's Easy Rawlins is brutalized by the police, not because they think him guilty of a crime, but because they think he may possess information they want. These are all fictions, but most any African American will tell you they are based on continuing, infuriating fact. And in grasping that fact we may move closer to understanding the investment black Americans developed in the fate of OJ. Simpson.
It is important to note that the African-American community is altogether capable of finding blacks guilty of murder. In my native New Orleans, twelve black jurors did just that twice in the last six weeks in a notorious-triple murder case at a Vietnamese restaurant. Two of the victims, restaurant employees, were Asian. The third victim was a white policeman working a security detail. The murderers were both black, an off-duty female police officer and her nineteen-year-old male accomplice. The two killers were tried separately, and both claimed racial bias in their prosecution. But both were found guilty. In both cases the juries deliberated less than an hour, and in both the juries recommended death sentences. Critically perhaps, neither defendant alleged police misconduct.
Nothing in Clockers or the other works that I've cited diminishes my conviction in OJ. Simpson's guilt, nor am I shaken in my opinion that the twelve Simpson jurors erred grievously. But I am instructed by the testimony in these works that black Americans continue to suffer the outrage of discrimination in their dealings with the criminal justice system, a discrimination so widespread that its bitterness is tasted by the great majority of people of color in our country. One of the Simpson jurors has already confided that though she thought Simpson "probably guilty" she felt the attitudes and reputation of Mark Fuhrman were enough to give her "reasonable doubt." And that reasonable doubt was shared by millions of black people, genuinely shared by honorable people whose experience in our land is different from those of us who are white. So late in our nation's history it is clear that even reasonable doubt comes in shades of black and white. My worst nightmare is that we shall fail finally to erase this division but rather, in our mutual distrust, march separately ownward toward the Balkanization of our land. The lesson for those of us who were sickened by the Simpson verdict, who were shocked by the joyous reaction of the black community, is to insure that the Mark Fuhrmans of this world cease working in our nation's police forces and otherwise purge from our midst those who restrict their notion of justice by racial category. Only then can we reasonably expect those of our fellow citizens who are black to see justice in the same way we do. Only when we have truly guaranteed justice for all can we hope at last to become one nation, indivisible.